Waterway Wanderings

For one father and daughter, Washington’s ferries are a can’t-miss activity

By: Marty Wentzel

Whenever my father comes to Seattle, we set aside at least one day for a ferry ride.

“The trip itself is the destination,” Dad said, a Midwest native who still marvels at the immensity of the ocean. “It’s part of the romance of Seattle.”

Dad’s not alone. Last year, Washington’s green-and-white fleet carried more than 24 million riders. Throngs of visitors choose to explore Washington state via ferry, whether as a short hop to a nearby island or as part of a multi-day trip, and the state does its part to keep the ferry experience fun and fresh.

This summer, for instance, the Picnic at the Pier concert series features live oceanfront music and food vendors at Elliott Bay’s Pier 52 Coleman Dock, the large terminal fronting downtown Seattle. Scheduled for the last Friday of each month, the next events take place on July 29 and Aug. 25.

But Dad and I don’t need an excuse for our jaunts across Puget Sound. We like to keep things simple. We don’t even take the car, preferring the ease of ambling on and off the ship while hundreds of drivers wait patiently to motor aboard. Sometimes the sky is thick with fog and the waters mysterious, while on sunny days, the snow-capped Mt. Rainier and Olympic Mountains define the scene like a stage set. As we pull away from the pier, the statuesque Space Needle and other Seattle landmarks shrink to a drop in the ocean. Seabirds surf the airwaves, and sea otters sometimes pop their heads up to say hello. Loved ones take pictures of each other on the deck, capturing a moment when time seems to stand still.

All of the ferries in the Washington fleet are named in honor of Northwest lore. From Pier 52, the good ships Tacoma (snowy mountain) and Wenatchee (river flowing from the canyon) chart a 35-minute course to Bainbridge Island. Many passengers disembark here and tour the little town of Winslow. They prowl around its bustling shops and galleries, grab a bite to eat and catch another ferry home. Dad and I prefer to do the roundtrip uninterrupted.

From Coleman Dock, the Hyak (speedy) and Kitsap (brave war chief) wend their way 60 minutes west to Bremerton. Home of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and U.S. Naval Museum, Bremerton is the first leg for many clients driving to Hood Canal and Olympic Peninsula. For less ambitious day-trippers like us, however, seaside Bremerton serves merely as the midway point of our floating conversation.

Although I don’t really need one, I’ve recently come up with another excuse to take Dad on a ferry. Transportation officials just reopened the onboard cafeteria line on the Seattle/Bainbridge route after an 18-month hiatus caused by budget problems. Other vessels are following suit in the near future.

“We hope to have food service on the Bremerton route next month,” said Nove Meyers, president of Olympic Cascade Services, the vendor operating the galleys on a majority of the ferries. “We plan to fine-tune the menu and act on many of the great suggestions we have received from our customers.”

So during Dad’s next visit, we can indulge in a steaming cup of chowder, a basket of fries and perhaps some beer or wine as we prowl from one port to the next.

Thanks to Washington’s ferry system, the largest in the country, clients can sail to adventures afar. The Fauntleroy terminal in West Seattle serves Vashon Island, a rural retreat with pine-lined roads, walkable beaches, hiking trails and a thriving arts community. North of Seattle, ferries depart the city of Edmonds for a 30-minute crossing to the town of Kingston, with its cozy cafes, curio shops and Saturday farmer’s market. Mukilteo is a popular jumping-off point for ferries to Whidbey Island, known for its rolling farmland and idyllic bays. From the Anacortes terminal, clients can ferry farther north to the rural islands of Lopez, San Juan, Orcas and Shaw. In fact, Washington ferries run all the way to Sidney, British Columbia.

But for this dad-and-daughter duo, a one-day jaunt out of Pier 52 is the perfect sojourn at sea.

As Dad puts it: “Riding a ferry anywhere else just isn’t the same. When I spend time on a Seattle ferry, it’s a true Northwest experience.”

Washington State Ferries